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Christians and the sign of the cross

November 30, 2005

The Apostles and early Christians were known to make the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads, mouths and chests with their fingers. They also blessed their food and water and everything else they used with it as well. They would use their thumb or index finger and, as Tertullian notes, the day would be punctuated with this saving sign.

The earliest form of the Cross included the “X” sign or the first letter of Christ’s name in Greek. Under the Roman persecutions, the Christians developed numerous secret symbols that they used to identify themselves and protect their religious beliefs. Christians would identity themselves to one another in the streets. If you thought another person might be a Christian, to confirm this you would draw a slash on a wall or on the ground, “\.” If the other person was, in fact, a Christian, then he or she would add another slash to complete the “X.” The same held true for the “fish” symbol.

It was against the backdrop of the development of mystical rites under persecution that the “Christogram” came into being. Priests and Bishops would bless their flock holding their fingers to form the first and last letters of our Lord’s Name, “IC XC” or Isus Khrystos (Jesus Christ). The index finger would be extended for the “I” while the middle and last fingers would be curved for the “C” and the thumb would cross with the second before last finger to form the “X.”

In Russia, the laity began to imitate their priests with respect to the Sign of the Cross so that the altered Christogram came to be used by them as the standard rite for blessing oneself.
The Russian Patriarchs even included an explanation for this rite: The thumb joined with the last two fingers symbolized the Holy Trinity, while the extended index finger stood for the Humanity of Jesus and the curved middle finger represented His Divinity that “bent down” the heavens and came to Earth.

This rite was accompanied with the Jesus Prayer. Touching the two fingers to the forehead, one said, “Lord” to show that Christ was the Head of the Church. Then, touching the belly, one said, “Jesus Christ” to show that He became Man of the Virgin Mary. Then, touching the right shoulder, one would say, “Son of God,” to show that He sits at the Right Hand of the Father. One would then touch the left and say, “have mercy on me a sinner,” to ask pardon of one’s offenses. Then, releasing the hand, one would bow.

This rite was different from that accepted throughout the rest of the Church, even before AD1054, where the thumb would join with the middle and index fingers in honor of the Holy Trinity and the final two fingers would be folded down in honor of the Divine and Human Natures of Christ.

“In the Name of the Father” would be said at the forehead in honor of the Father Who is Eternal Mind. “And of the Son” is said when one touches one’s belly in honor of the Incarnation of Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, in the Womb of His Mother. “And of the Holy” is said touching the right shoulder and “Spirit” is said touching the left shoulder in honor of the Third Person of the Trinity who proceeds from the Father. We then release the hand and bow in honor of the Holy Trinity and say, “Amen.”

Other traditions have other ways of making the Sign of the Cross. The Copts may be seen doing it with one finger to denote their belief that there is “One Nature” in Christ. The Ethiopians cross the thumb and the index finger and go to the left first and then to the right as the Oriental Orthodox do. They do this to show that Christ has brought us from death (left) to life (right). The association of the left side with evil and sin comes from pre-Christian Greco-Roman beliefs. Even the Latin word for “left” is “sinister” which has come to denote “evil intention.”
Roman Catholics practiced the three-fingered Sign of the Cross until the thirteenth century, as can be seen from a tract on this rite by Pope Innocent III. This tract was used by Eastern Catholics in their prayerbooks as a way to “justify” their continued use of this rite as opposed to the later Roman method of using the whole hand.

Contemporary Latin use of the whole hand and movement to the left first is, like the Old Rite method, derived from a lay imitation of the clergy. As only the Pope could bless using the Christogram, the Roman clergy began the practice of blessing with the whole hand.

When clergy bless the faithful, they move their hand from left to right or else reverse the order so that they would be “in step” with the faithful. The faithful began imitating this method, and so the practice of touching the left shoulder first took hold among the Latins to this day. It is, in fact, an error, but an error that has achieved the force of tradition through repeated and uncorrected use.

Recently, an article in a “High Church” Lutheran journal discussed the use of the Sign of the Cross in a very positive way. It described the various rites in use by the Church throughout the centuries, but said the Orthodox method of three fingers was the most correct!

The Sign of the Cross is a most powerful prayer and guard against evil. In the Ukrainian tradition, one crossed oneself even before drinking water, and marked a new, round loaf of bread by carving a small Cross at the top. In Baptism, the right hand is also marked with the Sign of the Cross to empower it make the Sign at all times.

Upon arising, or retiring, before and after work and study, before and after meals, before trips and important tasks and throughout the Divine Liturgy, the Sign of the Cross is our Shield of faith and protection. It is the ensign of Christ our Lord with which we are marked in Baptism and Chrismation forever as members of His Royal Priesthood.

When we make the Sign of the Cross, we should do it slowly and deliberately, meditating on the Holy Trinity and on our Lord Jesus Christ and His Passion, Death and Resurrection by which He opened to us the Gates of Heaven.

In times of sadness, sorrow, depression or worry, let us relax and make the Sign of the Cross, while calling on the Name of the Lord. Let us put our troubles into His Hands and learn that we cannot, nor are we intended, to fight life’s battles with evil, alone. The Cross is our protection through the power of Him Who was crucified on it and Who gave His Cross to us to be our banner and shield!

Dr. Alexander Roman

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